One of our captains has recently been helping out a Sitka wildlife tour operator by giving joint tours on one of our boats. It’s not uncommon for the various charter boat operators here in Sitka to help one another out if problems arise. In this case, the wildlife tour company’s boat was in the shop getting a new engine, so they called Theresa, and she sent Captain EJ and the “Checkmate” to help them out.
Today, Mother’s Day, was beautiful—the skies were blue and the ocean was calm. The snow capped peaks were in sharp contrast to the azure skies. The sun was shining, giving warmth against the fresh ocean breeze. Theresa decided that the staff should take advantage and go on a wildlife tour of our own. So twelve of us piled into the Checkmate, and EJ took us out to see some of the animals that call the north pacific home.
Some of the new members of our staff hadn’t been out on the ocean before, so they were loving the scenic splendor: Mount Edgecumbe striated with snow chutes, rimmed at the bottom by green carpets of pines, an enormous set of cream colored cumulus clouds sitting contentedly above the volcano, the surrounding islands and mountains making an impressive back drop to our little town by the sea. There is no question that one of the best ways to see the area is by boat.
The first thing EJ showed us was a “raft” of male sea otters. A raft is a large group of sea otters at rest, normally segregated by gender—the males raft with males, and the females with other females and their pups. We estimated that there were over 100 sea otters in the group! It was amazing. We coasted up to the raft and got up to about 100 feet away from them. Some of them splashed and dove at first sight of us, but most were content to float on their backs, bobbing in the ocean chop, or spy on us, raising their heads as high as they could out of the water. You can’t help but smile at their antics, so playful and cute.
Sea otters spend much of their time grooming. They are constantly combing themselves, removing excess hair, untangling knots, and cleaning. The coat of a sea otter is incredibly dense. In fact, otters have the most dense fur of any animal with nearly one million hairs per square inch. You’ll often see an otter spinning in the water; this is to help aerate its fur to improve buoyancy and provide insulation against the cold water.
Far off in the distance we could see a group of seals, sunning on the rocks. Sun glinted off their wet backs, which helped us identify them, but we were too far away to get any good pictures.
We headed off in a northerly direction, towards Inside Point on Kruzoff Island, to try and find some gray whales. EJ had seen a pod there earlier in the week. Gray whales come near Sitka early in the year on their way further north. They don’t spend a lot of time in the area, maybe a month at most in late April and early May. The gray typically spends most of its time near shore on the migration route between Baja, California and northern Alaska.
It wasn’t long before three or four people yelled and pointed to the telltale spout of water of a surfacing whale. EJ navigated us in that direction, and just before it dove down again, we saw that it was a gray! The gray whale has a dark slate coloring with a lot of whitish gray patterns on its back. It also has a lot of scarring from parasites that fall off when the whale returns to colder feeding grounds.
The gray we watched didn’t offer us many chances to see it. It surfaced three times for air before diving down deep once again. We weren’t as lucky as EJ had been earlier in the week. He had seen a pod of them in relatively shallow water, with one of them passing nearly under the boat. But we were glad to have seen what we did.
It was a successful trip. Watching the playful sea otters in their element was amazing. Getting to see a gray whale was incredible. The various birds swooping and diving made me wish I could fly. We all had a great time, and for a lot of the staff who don’t get to go out on the ocean very often, it was an awesome experience. The captains and deckhands are the most fortunate. They get to go out and see the magnificent Sitka scenery and wildlife that inhabit these waters all summer long.
Written by Tom, Deckhand ~ Checkmate